In a letter to bishops from the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, it was announced yesterday on the Feast of St Alphonsus Liguori, that the Church has recognised a development in understanding and protecting the dignity of all human life. Consequently, Pope Francis has ordered that a paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church be revised to explicitly ban all forms of the death penalty and to encourage Catholics to promote its worldwide abolition writes Matthew Charlesworth SJ.

In a recent development of doctrine, Pope Francis has approved the revision of paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church pertaining to the Church’s official position on the death penalty.

The term ‘development of doctrine’ was popularised by Cardinal John Henry Newman, among other theologians, and refers to the phenomenon of how Catholic teaching has become more detailed and explicit over the centuries. It requires that later statements of doctrine remain consistent with earlier statements but can develop the doctrine given the newer understanding of a previous teaching. In this way, we see how the Holy Spirit continues to inspire the Church. Without the development of doctrine, the Church could not take into account new instances of old problems, e.g. the effects of bio- and genetic- manipulation of the genome could never have been considered when the ten commandments were first understood. And so it is with the death penalty. Essentially, the increasing understanding of human dignity and the sacredness of all human life has led the Church to realise that the death penalty is incompatible with the Catholic tradition of being pro-life.

The new text is in continuity with the teaching of Pope John Paul II who wrote in Evangelium vitæ, his document on the Gospel of Life, that the ending of the life of a criminal as punishment for a crime is inadmissible because it attacks the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes.

In South Africa the death penalty was abolished on 6 June 1995 by the ruling of the Constitutional Court in the case of S v Makwanyane, where the court concluded, with similar reasoning, that:

Everyone, including the most abominable of human beings, has the right to life, and capital punishment is therefore unconstitutional.

The development of the Church’s doctrine was reached by taking into account “the new understanding of penal sanctions applied by the modern State, which should be oriented above all to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of the criminal.”

The rationale for the change includes the realisation that “given that modern society possesses more efficient detention systems, the death penalty becomes unnecessary as protection for the life of innocent people. Certainly, it remains the duty of public authorities to defend the life of citizens, as has always been taught by the Magisterium and is confirmed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church…”

The new paragraph, #2267, has therefore been revised to read:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

In an official letter, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) offers the Bishops, and the Church, an explanation for the change.

The CDF first noted how at the recent celebration of the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis requested that the CDF reformulate the Church’s teaching on the death penalty to take into account the recent development of teaching about the sanctity of human life, for example when Pope John Paul II declared that “[n]ot even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.”

It acknowledged that the death penalty was, in the past, used to preserve the common good, but that it is now increasingly accepted that the common good can be protected through better detention centres and that no crime can rob the human person of their inherent God-given dignity. Consequently, the CDF points out that there is “a new awareness that recognises the inadmissibility of the death penalty” and therefore a call “for its abolition.”

The CDF recalled two instances in which Pope John Paul II taught about the death penalty.

They said that Pope John Paul II’s teaching in Evangelium vitæ was included previously in the Catechism during an earlier amendment to paragraph 2267, when he stated that the death penalty can only be justified if it is “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.” The previous pope pointed out that such cases were in reality “practically non-existent.” The CDF further recalled how Pope John Paul II had on various occasions issued appeals to both respect the dignity of the person as well as for all persons to take note of the new and available means that today’s societies possess to defend themselves from criminals.

In their letter, the CDF noted how the motivation to commit the Church to the abolition of the death penalty was later continued by Pope Benedict XVI when he drew “the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty” and to “to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”

The CDF then explained how in the present pontificate Pope Francis had asked for a revision of the formulation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty, in a manner that affirms that “no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

In their concluding points, the CDF explained how the new wording of paragraph 2267 is “in continuity with the preceding Magisterium while bringing forth a coherent development of Catholic doctrine” as called for by Pope Francis and that this revision is an expression of “an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium” as was explained above. Finally, the new revision affirms that the understanding of the inadmissibility of the death penalty grew “in the light of the Gospel.” This revision, therefore, hopes to promote a “movement towards a decisive commitment to favour a mentality that recognises the dignity of every human life and, in respectful dialogue with civil authorities, to encourage the creation of conditions that allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.” SA.

This article is archived here from my work for the online publication, Spotlight.Africa which I wrote whilst working for the Jesuit Institute South Africa. Spotlight.Africa was a work of the Society of Jesus in South Africa from 2017-2021.

This was originally published at: